Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Parshat VaYikra

There are four Sedra Shorts in Parshat VaYikra

  • Moshe's Calling
  • Korbanot, Honey and Chametz
  • Sacrifice and Offering
  • The Pleasant Fragrance

Moshe's Calling

Sefer VaYikra begins with God calling Moshe into the Ohel Moed:

"He called to Moshe, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:" (VaYikra 1:1).

However, the Torah's standard formula for the introduction of a new subject is:

"The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying".

In order to understand this instance of Moshe needing an invitation from God, we need to examine the other instances when God called upon Moshe:

1. At the Burning Bush:

"The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, "Moshe, Moshe!" ... "Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, for the land upon which you are standing is holy" (Shemot 3:4-5).

2. Three times at Maamad Har Sinai:

"Moshe ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying:" (ibid 19:3).

"The Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the Lord called Moshe to the peak of the mountain, and Moses ascended" (ibid 20).

"The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from within the cloud" (ibid 24:16).

The difference between the Burning Bush and the Mount Sinai episodes, is that at the Burning Bush, Moshe wanted to approach and God called upon him not to. While at Mount Sinai, Moshe did not approach God, so God called upon him in order to approach.

Why did God stop Moshe from approaching Him at the Burning Bush and why did Moshe not automatically approach God at Mount Sinai?

Solving this problem will help us understand why Moshe was called in this week's parsha.

At the burning Bush, God actually tells Moshe why he could not approach: "...the land upon which you are standing is holy". Moshe was not in a fitting state to have an extremely close encounter with God. Unprepared close encounters with God leads to death: "... for no one can see me and live" (Shemot 33:20).

Indeed, Yaakov was surprised that he survived his encounter with the celestial being (Bereshit 32:20) as were Gidon (Shoftim 6: 22-23) and Manoach (ibid 13:22).

At Mount Sinai, God's glory was resting in a cloud at the peak of the mountain. Moshe could not approach Him so God needed to call upon him. Once invited, Moshe could enter the cloud and have communion with God.

So too, in the this week's parsha. As the Rashbam explains (on Vayikra 1:1), Parshat VaYikra is an immediate continuation of Sefer Shemot. Thre, the Mishkan had just been completed and God's presence was resting on it. Therefore, "Moshe could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan" (Shemot 40:35).

So, "He called to Moshe" to give him permission to enter the Ohel Moed.

Incidentally, the kohanim at the consecration of the first Temple were unfortunately excluded from this communion: "It came to pass, when the priests had come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord" (I Melachim 8:10-11).

The Kohanim did not receive the calling and remained outside.

Korbanot, Honey and Chametz

The Torah gives long, detailed explanations as to the items that can be offered as korbanot, in this week's parsha. They include certain animals and foods. However, the Torah adds that: "No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made out of chametz. For you shall not cause to [go up in] smoke any chametz or any honey, as a fire offering to the Lord" (VaYikra 2:11).

The Torah does not explain why, but neither chametz nor honey (probably the nectar that comes from dates and figs, as opposed to that of bees) can bed offered up as a korban to God.

We can only theorize as to why these foodstuffs were forbidden in the Temple. A popular explanation as to why chametz cannot be offered includes the idea that chametz is grain that has risen, i.e. puffed up, showing evidence of pride. This would counter the purpose of a korban, whose essence is to show humility before God.

Another idea is that unleavened grain, just like salt, which is a requirement of every offering, never decays and becomes moldy. This would symbolize God's covenant with Israel; it is eternal and will never decay.

It is far more difficult to understand why honey was forbidden as an offering to God. Rambam suggests that honey was a main ingredient used in the pagan worship of gods, and was therefore excluded from Israel's rituals. While modern scholarship suggests that Rambam was correct, it does not explain why wine and other foods also used in pagan worship, were permitted.

Nevertheless, we have a biblical source which shows that this stricture was upheld.

While castigating the inhabitants of Shechem who had anointed Avimlech as king, enabling him to murder his seventy brothers, Yotam, the only surviving brother, tells a story predicting their doom (see Shoftim Ch. 9). The story tells of the trees seeking a king. They approach, the olive, the vine and the fig trees. All three reject the position. The olive tree states: "Should I leave my fatness, seeing that by me they honor God and man" (ibid 9), showing that that olives (or the oil produced from it) were used in the worship of God. The vine states: "Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man" (ibid 13), showing that it was also used in worship. However, the fig tree states: "Should I leave my sweetness and my good fruitage" (ibid 11). It does not mention God, showing Israel, in this regard at least, did not copy its pagan neighbors and use honey in the worship of God.

Sacrifice and Offering

The Rabbis call Sefer Vayikra the Laws of Priests. Indeed, most of Sefer VaYikra is a priestly book, dealing with the subject attaining holiness, purifying impurities and the cleansing of sin. To be sure, Sefer VaYikra lists ritual upon ritual, which are mostly animal sacrifices, on how Israel can attain this level of holiness.

The modern world, including myself, finds it difficult to understand how the sacrificing of animals, the sprinkling of their blood and the smoldering of their ashes could possibly accomplish these goals.

We will try to understand this another time.

For now, let's try to understand the concept of the korbannot. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that we normally use two words to translate korban: Sacrifice and Offering.

These words are antonyms.

A sacrifice is done unwillingly, when one has no choice, while an offering is given willingly, with an open heart. There actually two types of sacrifices, some are requirements, sacrifices; while others are voluntary, offerings.

Both types of kobanot, nevertheless, have the same purpose, that is, to bring the sacrificer / offerer, closer to God.

Indeed, as Rabbi Hirsch explains that is the actual meaning of the words: korban. It comes from the Hebrew root, krv (
קרב), which means: to come close.

We aim to come closer to God. Judaism is an organized religion that can help us to achieve that goal. Its rituals are considered practices to help us achieve that. The problem is that the rituals become routine and we therefore, sometime miss the point.

Our challenge is to turn our obligations into offerings.

Through uniting our sacrifices and our offerings we create a korban and turn our rituals into meaningful ceremonies that can bring us closer to God.

The Pleasant Fragrance

This week's parsha is all about the korbanot, sacrifices and offerings brought by Israel for various occasions.

Thee concept seems strange to the modern person. God has a house. His house is similar to a human house with a table, lights, cupboard, wash basin, altar (aka oven) and implements.

And then it seems that God is being fed. He is given an offering. It is put on the altar and then it vanishes in smoke, with the smoke going up to heaven, as if God us dining on the animal. Sometimes, He even shares the meal with others.

The Torah then writes: "It is a burnt offering, a fire offering, a pleasing fragrance to the Lord: (VaYikra 1:17).

This phrase implies that God has literally enjoyed the offering. Even though many primitive people understood the concept in this manner, we of course, understand that all these ideas are anthropomorphic, the description of God in human terms, so that we can understand it.

This was not the first time, however, that God found a koban to be a "pleasing fragrance." After the flood, Noach also made sacrifice to God: "Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. The Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself" (Bereshit 8:20-21).

From this episode, we learn that the sacrifice was not to provide food for God. How?

In the parallel Gilgamesh epic, once the gods brought the flood to the world, they realized that they had made a grave mistake, for they no longer had any food or drink and were starving. Indeed, when the hero of the flood makes a sacrifice, he provides them with wine as well, and all the gods crowded around like flies into to get some food.

However, Noach does not provide any drink, for God was not thirsty, and neither does God crowd around the sacrifice, for He was not hungry. He just finds the odor pleasing. This, therefore means that He accepted the offering.

This idea can also be proved from another text in Sefer VaYikra. There God threatens Israel with numerous admonitions should they be unfaithful. The passuk writes: "I will lay your cities waste and make your holy places desolate, and I will not smell of your pleasant fragrances" (VaYikra 26:31).

There God does not seem to be worried about going hungry. He is simply that He will not smell the pleasant aroma, i.e. He will reject the offering.

Therefore, the term "smelling" the pleasant aroma, is merely a term that means, accepting the sacrifice, that the person offering the sacrifice has been accepted.


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